My knowledge of "the past" is relatively limited to specific periods of history. I have a degree in Ancient Greek and Latin, so I could tell you all about Suetonius' account of Claudius' imperial reign in excruciating depth, although I doubt you'd want me to. I know a lot about the Tudors, because I went to school in England, and we're so obsessed with Henry VIII in England that you'd think he was the 6th member of One Direction and the inventor of Marmite. I can also tell you about the '90s, but only because I was there.
And that's about it, really. The gaps in my historical knowledge, oddly enough, happen to cover pretty much anywhere that isn't England, or small pockets of Italy, France, and Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. I only know about the American Revolution through musicals. But there seems to be somewhat of a historical renaissance going on right now, and thankfully, this time, for once, it's not just about medieval Europe.
I've been playing The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles recently. I reviewed it back in July 2021, of course, but never quite got around to finishing it — playing two entire games for a review with a deadline isn't possible without sacrificing sleep and sanity — and I'm finally righting that wrong. It's set during the Meiji era of Japan, and the Victorian era of England, the latter of which I'm familiar with (Child labour! Industrial revolution! Steam trains! Big skirts and tall hats!) and the former of which I have absolutely no idea about.
It's a real delight to get to experience not only the starchy, staid nature of Victorian England through lawyer (and Phoenix Wright's progenitor) Ryunosuke Naruhodo's eyes, but to get to know something about Japan's history through him, too. Unlike past Ace Attorney games, Chronicles is fairly firmly rooted in reality. There is no Magatama magic or superpowered bracelets; everything is more or less accurate to the time. That means no fingerprints, no DNA, and no luminol — cases instead have to be solved old-fashioned-style, by piecing things together from evidence and testimony.
(Admittedly, Herlock Sholmes and Iris Watson, his sidekick, have a lot of ludicrous gadgets that help you solve crimes — like a gun that identifies blood, or a gun that makes cat flaps — but their evidence is largely inadmissible in court.)
Although Chronicles is set in Victorian England, it is about the experience of Japanese natives Ryunosuke, his assistant Susato, and his friends Kazuma and (real-life!) novelist Soseki Natsume. The story is told from their point-of-view as strangers in England, unfamiliar with the customs, and constantly getting into difficulties because Victorian British culture is bafflingly strict and stuffy about things like etiquette and behaviour, and most of the British characters are demeaning, racist, and patronising towards anyone they consider "lesser", which is — spoilers — pretty much everyone.
With England at the time being a world-leader in terms of industrial invention, Japan was catching up — and the game's artists have communicated the discrepancy with elaborate machinery and clockwork that astounds Ryunosuke and his entourage. When we cut to the scenes set in Japan, everything seems more rural; less metal, and more wood. There's a pleasant pastorality to it, especially in contrast to Victorian Britain's rush to invent global warming.
The game is probably an entirely different experience for Japanese players, who would understand Ryu's references, Soseki's quotes, and all the Japanese wordplay that is difficult to translate into English, but as English-speaking players, we are instead placed much more closely to the characters and society that is supposed to feel foreign — so Ryu and friends seem even more like interlopers.
At the same time, though, English-speaking players (who don't speak Japanese) are occasionally left behind by all the references and quotes, and it all begins to feel like in-jokes that you aren't in on yourself. I can understand why Capcom took so long to bring it west, because building a bridge between the Japanese version and the English players must have been an arduous task.
Nevertheless, I feel as though I've slowly learned a lot about the Meiji era of Japan just through playing the game. Which is good, actually, because that's roughly when Pokémon Legends: Arceus is set, too — albeit a fictionalised version, because Pokémon aren't actually real, to my immense disappointment. The Meiji era is one that I knew nothing about before Ace Attorney Chronicles, and now we have two games on the Switch that are about it.
I'm not very far into Pokémon Legends: Arceus yet (it only came out last week!) but the limitations and freedoms of the Meiji-like era are already fascinating.
The thing I like most about historical fantasy is the way that it can strip away all the periphery of the modern era — cars, phones, social media, space travel and so on — leaving behind much more room to explore human relationships, tensions, politics, and societies. Simpler times doesn't necessarily mean simpler interpersonal conflicts, after all.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is made richer and lighter by its historical setting, in part because it has been cut free of the weight of all the bells and whistles from the main series. Towns are smaller, the map is more self-contained, and the wilderness is genuinely a dangerous place to be, rather than a route between two cities full of plot. But the historical setting also makes the game feel fresh, because the past is an unknown to us — and even more so when it's a past you're unfamiliar with.
The most exciting thing for me is to get to explore historical Japan as an outsider, a tourist, and not be forced into swordplay. Many games set in Japan's past are about samurai, ninjas, or both — which is fine, but it's not for me. There are still perils in Pokémon Legends: Arceus' world, but they are viewed from a different angle: One of wanting to solve the problem, not destroy it. Pokémon Legends tasks you with taming and befriending an enraged animal rather than merely slaying it, and using that experience to learn.
There's so much history that doesn't involve stabbing people or slicing them in half, and if it weren't for games like Ace Attorney Chronicles, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, which is set in feudal Japan and focuses on farming, then I might never get to experience it.
We've seen plenty of games treat European and even North American history with reverence. The entire Assassin's Creed franchise, for example — perhaps the series that's most obsessed with history, outside of the entire turn-based strategy genre — lets us see history unfold through Greece, Italy, France, and London, but rarely does it dive into history outside of the western world.
But there's a dark side to every historical story, and the Meiji Restoration was one of colonialism and indigenous assimilation within Japan — something I really don't know much about, and something Pokémon Legends and Ace Attorney don't do much to tell you about, either, despite both being about Japanese protagonists being taken to lands, cultures, and even time periods that are foreign to them, which seems an obvious metaphor for the topics of colonialism and assimilation.
There are hints of this colonial story in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. The Weezing-shaped chimneys on the Galaxy HQ, which specifically recall Galarian Weezing's design, draw parallels between the rapidly-expanding colonial empire of Great Britain and these newcomers to Hisui who are very much fulfilling the colonial narrative of outsider-becomes-saviour.
Likewise, the native Pearl and Diamond clans dress in traditional clothing, and dwell in small settlements of tents, happily living alongside Pokémon; but the Galaxy Team members — who are constantly updating their fashion — are much more interested in pinning Pokémon down and studying them, and taking them from their natural habitats in order to figure out how to use them improve their own lives. Remind you of anything?
It's like there's a huge elephant in the room that Japanese players would probably be able to notice, which adds a deeper, richer context to the story, but players like me aren't aware of at all. (If you want to know more, Ricardo Contreras' review of the game on VICE goes into more detail — I recommend it as a review that tackles some of the historical context alongside the mechanics and aesthetics of the game.)
Still, I'm glad that video games are able to explore history in new ways, because it can only improve our base of knowledge. If Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin, and The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles are the heralds of a new age of old age in video games — one that celebrates and criticises aspects of history that are neither western-focused, nor combat-focused — then I'm all for it.
After all, Japanese history wasn't all katanas and shuriken, just as European history wasn't all swords and cannons. People in the past were not all fighters, and the past isn't just wars, either, even if video games would have you believe differently. If we define our history as a civilisation by the times we violently disagreed, then our legacy is one of blood and strife — and there's so much more to the world than that.